Getting to Know Me

For those of you just getting to know me, my life as a mother has not always been quite as straight-forward as it now seems. Rather than reinvent the wheel, or in this case re-write it, please read My Guilty Heart, which I published on HybridMom.com in January of 2010, to learn more:

My Guilty Heart

“Ooooooh,” the sales lady coos through her saccharine smile, her doe-eyes, heavily-lined with black eye-liner, glancing expectantly in my direction. It seems a new mother, adorned with all of the divine accoutréments of motherhood—stroller and diaper bag; sweet, milky smell and dark, sleepless eyes; beatific expression and brand new baby girl—is cruising blissfully amongst the aisles, and she has captured our attention. Suddenly the floor-to-ceiling rows of embroidered denim, vintage tee’s and Boho-chic dresses that just moments ago were the critical, final pieces to the puzzle of my new-fall-wardrobe, feel constricting and claustrophobic and there is a very real danger that I just might suffocate.

“I sooo want another baby,” the clerk gushes on. “My son just turned 18, and all I can think of is babies, babies, babies!”

She is enjoying her temporary departure into the realm of fantasy, and sees in me a convenient companion to play along. But I cannot. Even this minor sojourn into world of what-ifs is one I dare not risk.

“Me too,” I manage with effort, distracted by the fact that the store has been sucked free of oxygen and that right here, right now, in the middle of Lucky Brand Jeans, I could finally collapse under the weight of this confession.

“My daughter,” my only child, “will be 12 soon,” I add, devoid of enthusiasm, woefully unable to play my part. I quickly make my escape to the sanctity of my changing-room, my words hanging behind me like so-many vacant garments. Alone, sheltered only by a heavy canvass curtain, I pray to the Lord of All things Fair and Kind that the baby-crazed-black-eyeliner-addict on the other side has not seen the tears welling in my eyes; that my face will not be puffy and red when I re-emerge; and that she will never, ever know the depth of truth in my response. Because on January 9, 2009, my husband, Matt, had a vasectomy. For me, no matter how much I want, there will be no more children.

I have always wanted to be a mother. From my earliest childhood recollections, I have never wanted anything more.

It was a scorching summer day in Ontario when I was nine. My older sister, Carrie, and I were playing a silly, girly game in which the mysteries of life, love and marriage are revealed by a strategically-folded piece of paper upon which all of these secrets have previously been scribed. We sought shelter from the heat in the shade of our front stoop, exhaling long, lazy sighs, as we watched the undulating air escape from the scorched, tar-like surface of our driveway. It was my turn.

“When you grow up, who do you want to marry?” Carrie asked.

“Donny Osmond,” I replied, faltering, secretly debating whether or not Shawn Cassidy might be the better choice. Her fingers fluttered in and out, hidden within the folds of our makeshift toy, indicating that Donny had been registered.

“How old will you be when you get married?”

“Twenty,” I said. At nine, twenty was distant. A two-digit age that did not begin with the number one, I thought twenty sounded so glamorous, so mature. Once again her digits flew, the paper now another step closer to revealing my fate.

“What do you want to be?” came next.

“A mom,” I answered, without hesitation. She looked at me, a quizzical expression locked in her gaze and her fingers frozen within their papery encasement.

“But how do you know?”

“I just do,” I replied. And I have known ever since.

In my life, I have been blessed to become a mother twice. The first time was instantaneous. I did not conceive and I experienced no labour. It happened on a similarly lazy, summer afternoon on a trip to play at a lake, the day I met my soon-to-be-step-daughter, Ashley. She was one-and-a-half and I was in my early twenties. I was dating her father, John, and I now realize, I saw in him the future I had envisioned for myself so long ago. With a pre-disposition towards motherhood, I did not find the prospect of an instant family daunting. For me it was a natural fit, like I’d been granted a free pass to family planning phase number two; phase number one was taken care of. Becoming Ashley’s step-mother was as natural as childbirth itself. With the push of her stroller, the building of a sand castle and a few good rounds of “peek-a-boo,” our connection was forever set.

The second time I became a mother it happened the old-fashioned way. Our plan fell into place like this: John and I talked it over, agreed it was time to have a baby and presto! Five weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, 1997, my doctor confirmed our success. Our daughter, Alyssa, known to all as “Lyssie,” was born in October later that year. Holding her, watching her sleep in my arms and drinking in, inch by perfect inch, the smallness of her pink little body as I un-wrapped the nurse’s swaddle to see the entirety of her for the very first time, I was as happy as I have ever been. We had created a family: John, Ashley, Alyssa and me

The museum of my mind houses the relics of our life together, safely preserved behind glass to be viewed with caution, from a distance. The first time Ashley held her baby sister, her awkward, careful, seven-year-old arms trying with great effort to ensure that she followed instructions to “Safely hold baby-Lyssie’s head.” Her tenderness was genuine, her face, beaming with pride and love as she slipped effortlessly into the role of big sister. And as Alyssa grew, so did her admiration of Ashley. After “Mama” and “Dada,” her first word was “Ash.” With her toddler’s limbs flailing excitedly in Ashley’s direction, and a constant stream of “Ash! Ash! Ash!” spilling from her lips, there was no doubt whose attention she craved.

After Alyssa was born, I continued to plan for more children, at least two, maybe three, would he go for four? Unfortunately, John and I had significantly more success with conception than marriage, and after too many ugly years of struggle and an unparalleled desire to be anywhere but with each other, we separated. It was not long after Alyssa turned two, just as the world discovered that the dawning of a new millennium was not going change anyone’s lives in any significant way but ours. On precisely January 1, 2000-and nothing, I became the single-mother of a precocious toddler, and the step-mother of no one.

A “broken family”: That is what we were. A family is more than the sum of its individual parts, but we were torn apart, decomposed and reduced to singular elements. Half sisters who once lived, even if only part-time, as siblings, were forced grow up apart, re-uniting only on those occasions when their father could coordinate his already complicated visitation schedules. A father was wrenched, for the second time in his life, from full-time fatherhood. And a child, our Lyssie, who remained living with me, was destined for a life of weekends and holidays transferring back-and-forth between parents and their families, each of whom wanted all of her, all the time. And then there was me.

For nine years Ashley was mine, as sure as if she had been pulled kicking and screaming from my uterus in the exact same way as her sister, but I lost her. A part of me went with her, and I will never get it back. So when I met Matt, I believed I had been granted a second chance for more children and I assumed he wanted the same thing. Picture this: We are in my living room. Outside my window, the sun is setting and the long shadows of evening are beginning to stretch across the floor. The lights are dim, the wine glasses empty and John Hiatt’s gruff, soulful voice is seducing our minds and bodies into a state of peace. My head is nestled softly against Matt’s chest and his arm is draped tenderly around my shoulder. The moment is perfect. With a sigh of contentment, I turn my face upwards to his and whisper my response to the question he has not asked.

“Yes,” I exhale, “I would be happy to have more children.”

The tensing of his limbs communicated everything I needed to know, but he said it anyway: “But I don’t want to.”

What the *#&*? This possibility had never, not once, crossed my mind. Do you know what they say about assumptions? “Assume” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” Well, on this particular occasion, I was the only ass in the room.

Before I continue, let me be clear: Matt is a very good man. Together, we have created a great marriage. Having been in a bad marriage for far too long I am extremely well-qualified to identify the difference, and this, my friends, is a very good marriage. For seven years, Matt has supported and encouraged me, he has loved Alyssa as if she was his own and he has welcomed my ex-husband into his life for Alyssa’s benefit. He simply never wanted more children. I knew that when I married him. Did I think he would change his mind? Probably. Did I think I could change it for him? Perhaps.

In a recent conversation with Alyssa, in the honest, straightforward manner of children before they learn the arts of guile abd deception, she looked me straight in the eyes and said “I don’t have a sister anymore.” Her words were daggers, their simple truth piercing my core with stunning precision. I did this. It is because of me and my choices that Alyssa is an only child. This is the ruin that remains from the train wreck that was my first marriage. Divorcing John was absolutely the right thing to do, but there is no denying that I did not fully grasp the implications of my decision. There is guilt in breaking up a family, in tearing apart sisters, and I am heavy with it.

Ashley and Alyssa now live like distant relations, sisters still, yet somehow strangers. My sister and I grew up together, playing, laughing, crying, sharing our lives. Someday, when our parents are gone, we will still have each other. Alyssa will have none of this. It has taken me ten years of reflection, a second marriage to a strong, kind-hearted man, and the harsh, no-other-choice finality of a single vasectomy to accept that another child will not replace Ashley, not for me nor for Alyssa.

I arrive home from my shopping trip, hastily purchased new attire rustling as tissue paper rubs against paper shopping bags. I find Matt seated in his favourite chair-and-a-half, lap top computer perpetually in lap, clacking away on the key board with one hand as he absentmindedly strokes the calico cat nestled beside him with the other. The cat, who has silently claimed ownership of this chair by her ongoing presence in it, meows to indicate her supremacy as cat number two saunters by. Alyssa, my sweet little Lyssie, is practicing her guitar and singing, the gentle melody of her Dixie Chicks ballad soothing my guilty heart with each forgiving note. This is my family now. It is just the three of us, us and our two feline friends. It is small and loving and precious. It really is all that I will ever need.

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